Thursday 14 June 2012

Full Council meeting and the Constitution

Called into County Hall yesterday to observe the first actual council meeting (other than the AGM) since the election. The difference, if there was any was, imperceptible.

First up after the apologies, praying, etc was the well timed announcement that the new Furnace School in Llanelli had had the nod from Leighton Andrews (Welsh Minister for Education) - good news I'm sure, although there is the planning process to get through yet, a point raised by several members who suggested a more appropriate and accessible site should be considered. This was the point raised by Cllr Caiach in her formal objection - in Carmarthenshire, as the campaigners opposing the closure of Pantycelyn well know, you only have one option, the council's plan or nothing at all.
The furore over Furnace School has been centred around the consultation process rather than the proposal itself, you may remember the Director of Education took the highly inappropriate step of personally writing to objectors asking them to withdraw their concerns. (By the way the Court of Appeal hearing to request permission for a Judicial Review over the closure of Pantycelyn is set for the 29th June).

Cllr Williams (Plaid), representing a rural ward in north Carmarthenshire expressed his concern over the closure of his local school this year (Caio) and wondered when the council would try and regenerate our rural wasteland - I suppose that will now be in the capable hands of Cllr Pam Palmer, Exec Board Member with the newly created 'rural' portfolio. How uninspiring. There were no similar concerns expressed by those other two 'independent' champions of the northern rural hinterland, Cllrs Theophilus and Jackson who, as ever, remained silently loyal to the ruling groups.

Next was the  'Draft Code of Corporate Governance' (mentioned here), Cllr David Jenkins put forward a few questions concerning the system of reviewing the ever increasing functions and actions of the Executive Board, but the Chief Executive responded assuring everyone not to fret, all had been taken care of and all had been approved anyway at the last meeting under the guise of the 'Councillors allowances and job titles' report, and with that comforting thought, new Leader Cllr Madge felt compelled to say something, which was to assure everyone that he wouldn't interfere with the functions or actions of the Chief Executive. No change there then.

So with the Code of Good Governance duly rubber stamped and placed in a dusty drawer the meeting moved on to the changes to the constitution. Constitutional changes in Carmarthenshire are never conducive to further democracy and this was no exception; the number and power of scrutiny committees was reduced and their ability to 'call-in' decisions was to be reduced from a 'right' to a 'suggestion' The general idea was that there were eight 'amendments' and all were to be voted on as one package, Cllr Jenkins pointed out that this wasn't quite right, as there were individual concerns. It reminded me of the approval of amendments in 2008 when certain changes were hidden in documents within documents, various councillors protested that they had not received the paperwork in time to study it, Cllr Gravell had insisted they 'get on with it' and raise any concerns afterwards - when it was too late of course.

Anyway back to the present day and the proposal to have Home to School Transport appeals heard by officers instead of councillors was actually defeated, the flash of democracy coming from a primed Pam Palmer, but more of Pam's vision of democracy later.

The next thorny issue (and descent into confusion) was the changing of the word 'require' to 'request' concerning the obligation of an Executive Board member to attend, and be questioned at a scrutiny committee. This proposed change was passed off by the Acting (she's been acting for nearly a year now) Head of Law as 'we were trying to be polite to members', (Executive Board members that is) and there is no 'law' to subpoena members or officers to attend anyway, fair comment I suppose given the reluctance of anyone in the higher echelons of this authority to be accountable; eventually a vote had to be taken and (I believe, correct me if I'm wrong), the wording was changed to 'request'.

Cllr Caiach took the opportunity, as part of this report concerned 'member/officer relations, to ask the Chief Executive whether the 'special measures' he had put her under (she had committed the cardinal sin of asking too many questions and taken up to much officer time so was restricted to communicating solely with the Chief Exec) would be lifted as he was such a busy man he had failed to respond to her queries and therefore she was unable to raise the concerns of her constituents.

You will be aware from this blog that Cllr Caiach's relationship with the Chief Executive has been a little stormy, she has been one of the only councillors to dig their heels in and consistently question the anti-democratic stance of the regime. The Chief Executive responded and told her (and reminded everyone else) that 'other bodies' were currently looking into her behaviour, well the ombudsman anyway,  as he had personally reported her last year, and that he was not going to discuss this across the floor of the Chamber but would discuss it in private. I'm sure that will be an interesting meeting.

The curious subject of whipping was next with the ban on the use of party whips in scrutiny committees, a requirement of the Local Government Measure 2011. Walnut whips I believe, are still allowed. Plaid took the opportunity to accuse the Independents of acting like a political party, one even producing a letter dated last year from Pam Palmer to her 'group' ensuring they voted 'as we had discussed'.
Everyone knows that they act and vote as a Party but have the advantage of not having to declare any party policy or manifesto promises which they may have to stick to, but of course Cllr Palmer was having none of it. "Pathetic" she shreiked and went into a tirade about how she hoped the Chamber wouldn't become like Westminster with childish laughter, jeers and I suppose, heated democratic debate, god forbid that might happen Pam. She then went on to explain (about the letter I suppose) that she always kept her group 'fully informed', this was a bit of a give away and resulted in jeers and laughter from the opposition. She sat down frowning in distate.

Questions about the publication of the Executive Board Forward Work Plan (would it be online or on paper? Some councillors clearly still have a problem with the mysteries of the interweb) necessitated another speech by Leader Cllr Madge who declared that they would all soon be informed one way or another of the "very exciting programme ahead", presumably when the Chief Executive had given him a copy.

Further noises were made about the exclusion of the public and press from Executive Board Member decision meetings, and if they couldn't be 'open', couldn't other councillors be present? These are meetings between one Exec Board Member and relevant officers (not the fortnightly Executive Board meetings) and as far as I know, have never been 'open' to anyone. Usually, but not always, dealing with the bestowing of grants, no agenda is published, only an after the event 'Decision Record' with the recipients largely identified only in code. There is no input nor opportunity for questions from other elected members, and quite clearly that's how it will stay.

That was about it for the Constitution which will be popped into the dusty drawer next to 'good governance'.

The meeting rumbled on with various reports from assorted pre-election committees up for approval.
One question arose over the council's recent purchase, for £152,000, of the old police station in Ammanford (not the PFI one). Although generally welcomed, Members were keen to know what exciting plans the senior officers had in mind for the site, the Director of Regeneration, Mr David Gilbert, was tasked with replying and er, he didn't know, didn't have a clue in fact. He mumbled something about it being 'early days' and selling it on the open market with er, maybe 'mixed use planning' on might provide a couple of jobs and er, there might be some residential use...where's a press officer when you need one? Either the council have a plan and they're not letting on or they've invested £152,000 of your money with no plan whatsoever. Who knows.

I had to leave before the end, I had a headache, I requested my release by phone and was personally escorted out by two members of staff. Nice.

the special public gallery release phone

1 comment:

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you once again for keeping everybody informed about the goings on. From bad to worse, it seems.